Monday, August 24, 2009

Pluto and Science Literacy

I've just did a depressing test, the Science Knowledge Quiz from the Pew Research Centre. Yes, I got them all right, but they were astoundingly easy. What was depressing was that only 10% of the population (mostly US citizens), could get it right. The questions included such brain teasers as "Electrons are smaller than atoms, true or false".

It's enough to make a grown scientist cry.

In terms of astronomy, only 60% of people were aware that Pluto had been demoted! Given the huge publicity over the demotion of Pluto, and the fact that the demotion of Pluto has been made an icon of how badly scientists treated the public by springing the demotion on them (not) by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, the fact that 40% of the American public is unaware that Pluto has been demoted is worrying.

You would expect that all the "public protest" that Mooney and Kirshenbaum report would have raised awareness (unless, of course, it was all a beat up, and most of the public didn't actually care). Still, that such a high profile event has by-passed the conciousness of so many people is worrying. Similarly, NASA has a well financed publicity office, with lots of press releases and informative websites (and online TV), yet, yet, only 61% of people were aware of the discovery of water on Mars (whereas if I see another press release saying "more evidence of water on Mars" I'll scream). Heck, only 65% could identify CO2 as a greenhouse gas, with the amount of reportange flying about, how could you miss this?

If such high profile, front page media events penetrate to just over half of the public, how is more mundane science going to make an impact? Mooney and Kirshenbaum are big on scientists becoming communicators (something I'm definitely in favour of), but given the failure of high profile, well sported media exposure from these three key events (Pluto, Water on Mars and CO2 in global warming) to penetrate the conciousness of more than 3/4 of the American public, just how are ordinary scientists, with average budgets and far less exciting results going to make an impact at all.

If Mooney and Kirshenbaum can answer that, I'll listen intently.


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